Among the chattering classes, Yale law profes- sor Amy Chua has sparked recent debate for her controversial new memoir on the virtues of her Chinese parenting style, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” Released to less acclaim, but one hopes greater readership, is another essay on parenting, by Anthony Esolen: “Ten Ways To Destroy the Imagination of Your Child.” If Ms. Chua’s book stands as an indictment of modern American parenting from the perspective of a Chinese mother, Mr. Esolen’s book is also an indictment of modern American parenting - but, ironically, for being insufficiently American.
While some of Ms. Chua’s more extreme parenting experiences have led some to wonder whether her book is intended as a work of satire (it appears that it is not, at least not completely) Mr. Esolen’s book actually is intended as a satire. And while Ms. Chua criticizes modern American parenting as providing insufficient control and discipline, Mr. Esolen attacks the overscheduling and overregimentation of modern childhood. Indeed, in many ways, Ms. Chua has advanced precisely the argument Mr. Esolen is satirizing.
Mr. Esolen’s satirical hook - why would we want to destroy the imagination of our child? - is that imagination, creativity and original thinking are temperamentally unsuited for modern American society, which Mr. Esolen sees as charmless, consumerist and bland. As he frames the problem in his introduction, “For the first time in human history, most people are doing things that could never interest a child enough to make him want to tag along.” Most people drudge through uninteresting jobs in uninteresting buildings with uninteresting sights and not even a breath of fresh air. School, too, is a conveyor belt of mass-produced students, a “human warehouse, the faraway, sprawling school, stocked with hundreds or thousands of pupils.” In our modern world of standardized, modular school, work and society, an active imagination is not just a distraction but an outright menace.
Mr. Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, senior editor of Touchstone magazine and translator of Dante, thinks a society that depends on throttling the imagination of its children - as he sees America today - is a sick society fundamentally unsuited for human habitation. Mr. Esolen appeals instead to traditional American virtues - faith, family and country. To live the full richness of life requires that we activate our imaginations to distinguish the beautiful from the ugly, the noble from the knave. Creativity, passion, virtuous striving, responsible conduct of our duties, freely assumed - this is the warp and woof of what it means to be human and, hence, happy.
While professor Chua conscripts her daughters with compulsory three-hour violin and piano lessons (leaving open the obvious question, “What is so special about the violin or piano as opposed to the cello, trumpet or, for that matter, fly-fishing or baseball?”) Mr. Esolen says we should encourage children to pursue their passions and develop a love of those activities for their own sake, regardless of their utility. Whereas Ms. Chua insists on world-class proficiency in the hobbies her daughters pursue under the belief that such things are fun only after one becomes expert, Mr. Esolen instinctively sides with G.K. Chesterton’s tribute to amateurism that anything “worth doing is worth doing badly.”
If Ms. Chua sees American children as needing more structure and control, Mr. Esolen urges the opposite - fewer play dates and music lessons and more free time for play, reading and tree climbing. If we want to destroy children’s imagination, we should fill up their time with scheduled activities, tell them what books to read and what instruments to play and, above all, stress that none of this is to be enjoyed for its own sake but merely as steppingstones to eventual admission to Harvard or Brown.
The structure of Mr. Esolen’s book is 10 chapters titled by mock “how to” lists to deaden your child’s imagination. For example, “Keep your children indoors as much as possible,” “Never leave children to themselves,” “Replace the fairy tale with political cliches and fads,” “Cast aspersions upon the heroic and patriotic” and “Cut all heroes down to size.” He castigates the bland gender-neutralism of modern society (“Level distinctions between man and woman”) and the general elimination of faith from modern society (“Deny the transcendent”). In short, almost none of the sweeping trends of the past 30 years avoids Mr. Esolen’s sweeping gaze. Indeed, he even indicts the lengthening of the school year and the consequent shortening of summer vacation as a pernicious influence that jams kids back into the learning warehouse and shortens their opportunity for free, unstructured time. Games you invent are always the best kind (anyone up for a game of “roof ball”?) - and they only come around after you’ve gotten bored with all the regular games.
The book is really an extended essay on modern America. Although Mr. Esolen’s skewering of contemporary culture with all of its political correctness and shallow moral gestures is devastating, he tends to understate the virtues of modern global economic culture and overstate those of a romanticized past. While the modern economy can enable us to pursue crass consumerism on an unprecedented scale, it also can free us to pursue the opposite. For the first time in history, even those of the most modest income are within a six-hour flight of a personal experience of the Mona Lisa or the churches of Toledo, Spain, not to mention having books and theater within financial reach. Not only did the march of economic and technological progress during the 20th century provide the material predicates to expanded choice, for the first time it liberated Americans from the ceaseless toil of fields and factories so that we have leisure time to travel and learn.
And while Mr. Esolen is on target in expressing concern about the drudgery of much of modern work, he ignores the fact that the work it replaced was in most instances even more monotonous and dangerous. Picking potatoes or mining coal for 12 hours a day, seven days a week is not any more fun than sitting in a cubicle making entries on a spreadsheet. Backbreaking labor is hardly less onerous or more interesting, because it is conducted outdoors in the heat of July or chill of February.
On the other hand, the traditional economic strength of the United States (especially in recent decades) has been in its entrepreneurial and creative capacity - a worldview that Mr. Esolen’s view of education seems more likely to promote than Ms. Chua’s emphasis on rote learning and repetition (which, interestingly, seems to be at the root of Chinese growth as a global economic power). It may be that even though Ms. Chua’s parenting style may befit the gray corporate bureaucrats who manage the day-to-day affairs of global corporations, Mr. Esolen has tapped into the imaginative energy that has been the engine of America’s global economic leadership.
But in the end, the real nub of the disagreement between Mr. Esolen and Ms. Chua is deeper: For Ms. Chua, the measure of a life well lived is a public debut at Carnegie Hall and a chaired professorship at Yale Law School. For Mr. Esolen, the measure of a life well lived is, well, a life well lived, full of good friends, good books and a loving family, capped by a seat at the eternal banquet in heaven. Whereas Ms. Chua sees the mission of parenting to be to narrow children’s vision to focus on the relevant, useful and practical, Mr. Esolen seeks not just to broaden children’s vision to include the seemingly irrelevant, useless and impractical virtues of honor, heroism and love, but to raise their gaze to the heavens and the heroes and saints who reflect them.
Who has the right way to raise happy, healthy kids in modern America - the Chinese tiger mother or the American lion father? The happiness - and economic success of the United States - rests on the decision.
Todd Zywicki is a law professor at George Mason University.